Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who has made a career out of being a moderately dissident poet in the Soviet Union, is suddenly becoming a multi-media conglomerate.
Long regarded as the official bad boy of Russia, the 45-year-old writer said yesterday that he has just finished his first (and possibly last) acting role in a Russian movie, that he has written 400 pages of what will be a 450-page first novel, that he intends to write five more novels ("my own little five-year plan") and that he will direct an autobiographical film about his boyhood in Siberia.
Were that not enough, an exhibit of his photographs opens in London on April 1. He will be going there for the show, and to see his English wife and his son, Sasha, who was born in England a month ago. It is not an unusual schedule for Yevtushenko, who travels on three continents for about two months of each year, and spends the remainder in Moscow with his wife.
In Washington to read at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute from his latest book of poems, "The Face Behind the Face," Yevtushenko smoothly averted questions on potentially explosive topics. Asked about the recently compiled "underground" Soviet periodical "metropol," for example, he said: "I didn't know about this magazine and have not seen a copy. I was out of Moscow, in the provinces, working 18 hours a day making a movie when 'Metropol' was being planned."
He even declined to comment on the recent chess match between Karpov and Korchnoi, saying that "to me, chess is pieces of wood on a board. Some people make a political thing of it, and I think that is a sickness on both sides."
Chain-smoking but clearly at ease, Yevtushenko spoke fairly fluent English, pausing occasionally to clarify a point in Russian with John Glad of the University of Maryland faculty, who joined in the interview. Except for a wedding ring (Russian-style on his right hand), he seemed to be wearing nothing made in the Soviet Union: a pink and white striped shirt and a black leather sports jacket. His corduroy trousers might cost some Soviet workers a month's salary.
It's been a long way from the austerity of his childhood, which will be the subject of the first movie he will direct. "It will be autobiographical -- but of course I cannot portray myself as a child -- the story of a Siberian childhood and some strange adventures, sleeping on the roofs of trains, mingling withe underworld characters, and some bank robberies.
"Yes, I have robbed banks -- but they were only provincial banks; very small, not important."
Although clearly familiar with the work of some Soviet emigre poets who are living in the U.S., he declined to comment on any of them except Joseph Brodsky. "If I don't like their poetry," he said, "I don't want to be critical. They are in a more difficult position than I, and I don't like to criticize people who lack my advantages."
Brodsky, who was sentenced to Siberia in 1964 after a trial for "idleness" and deported in 1972, is "a great poet -- the best," Yevtushenko said.
The "advantages" he enjoys include not only millions of enthusiastic fans but also the tolerance of the Soviet government, which seems to accept him as a sort of "dissident in residence."
One measure of the status Yevtushenko enjoys in the USSR was the fact that he gave what he call "my first newspaper interview in the United States" alone in his hotel room without the "nursemaid" who usually accompanies Soviet celebrities in contacts with the Western media.
Yevtushenko has been an international celebrity since the early 1960s, partly because of the readable style of his poems and his dramatic delivery in recitations, but even more because of his moderately outrageous remarks. He has been able to criticize aspects of Soviet society, to express sympathy (though not full agreement) with Solzhenitsyn and to get away with it -- suffering occasional rebukes and periods of eclipse but always coming out eventually on top.
Like a traditional poet-laureate, Yevtushenko has always been available with instant (often editorial) poems on current events: assassinations (in the United States), the fighting with China on the Ussuri River, the deaths at Kent State, the Vietnam War, the decline and fall of Stalinism, and a fearless denunciation of Albanian tyranny.
Sometimes, as in "Bobi Yar," an indictment of anti-Semitism, the poems have been considered controversial. But Yevtushenko was careful to make it clear that this poem was about Nazi anti-Semitism -- and when officials didn't find this clear enough in the first edition, he allowed revisions.
His detractors like to criticize the facile style and superficiality of his instant poems and compare him to writers like Rod McKuen. He cheerfully admits that "70 percent of my poems are very far from perfection -- sometimes I explain too much," but he perfers to be compared to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other "beat generation" poets.
Whatever his merits, he sells. "My latest book had orders for a million copies before it was published in Russia," he says. "Because of paper shortages, only 100,000 could be published. When I wanted to give copies to my friends, I had to buy them on the block market, at triple the price."
Although he has been publishing poetry since 1952 and has published a "Precocious Autobiography" in prose, the novel in progress (working title: "Wild Berry Places") is a new departure for Yevtushenko. "It is a Siberian '100 Years of Solitude,'" he says. "In my prose, I am a disciple of Marquez, who may be the greatest living writer."
He sees few signs of greatness in the younger generation of Soviet poets, and thinks it may be partly his fault because many of them imitate him. "They send me poems which are imitations of my own and expect me to be pleased," he said. "But I am not.
"Who needs Yevtushenko No. 2"?